Friday, August 29, 2014

Poet to Poet: Julie Larios and Skila Brown

It's time for another installment of my "Poet to Poet" series-- in which one poet interviews another poet about her/his new book. Today, Julie Larios (author of the marvelous Yellow Elephant and Imaginary Menagerieasks Skila Brown three questions-- about her new book, Caminar, a novel in verse set in Guatemala, about her childhood memories, and about writing that inspires her.
JL: This question won't surprise you, Skila, because you know I struggle with it. You're drawn to both poetry and fiction, and your story Caminar (which is so well-written - and haunting) took the form of a verse novel. What do you think poetry can do to a reader, and what can fiction do, and what can the verse novel do that is distinct from either of these? 

SB: Fiction gets in your head. A good story feels real while you’re reading it. The people, the setting, the relationships—it can all suck you in, alter your mood, give you a new perspective, and build a bridge between you and somewhere you’ve never been. Not just a place, but also a kind of character you can suddenly empathize with. Fiction—good fiction—is difficult to read slowly. It’s like a delicious meal when you’re hungry, and you’re consciously trying to eat slower than you’d like.
Poetry, I think, feels like a beautiful mountain. You can enjoy it from so many different levels. But the more you climb, the more you work, the more you can see. It requires work on the reader’s part, work to shake off preconceptions, carefully consider new meanings and uses for words, and think about other possibilities. It’s often a jolt to your senses. It can be populated with images and descriptions that are real and vibrant and unique. It encourages lingering. 
A verse novel can do both. It’s a versatile form that allows the reader to get sucked in to the story, rapidly turning the pages to find out what happens next. Or it provides the space and the weight for a pause, maybe an image or a metaphor that is so sharp the reader stays with that poem for a bit and savors it. Novels in verse allow the reader to choose how to digest the story, and, because of that, it can appeal to a wider audience.
JL: If given a wish now, as adults, we might wish for world peace or for our children to be healthy and happy - grand, important, sweeping wishes, full of fear and hope.  But I'm interested in whether we can really capture what we were like as children. So I'd like you to do this: Close your eyes and pretend that it's your tenth birthday (plus or minus a year is fine) - you have a cake in front of you with candles on it, and if you blow those candles out with one breath, your wish will come true. Here comes a multi-part question: What do you wish for and why and how much do you want it and how much do you believe it will come true? 
SB: So, Julie. I remember my tenth birthday very well. It happened to be the birthday in which I closed my eyes, made a wish, leaned over my cake to blow out my candles…and then promptly lit the edges of my hair on fire. 
I smelled it before I felt it. In that tiny third of a second before the corner of my eyes filled with the flame and my ears filled with everyone shouting and telling me what to do, there was the smell. This terrible burning chemical odor that filled up my nostrils because I’d just spent hours the day before sitting in a chair, with little plastic curlers on my head, and enough chemicals to burn my eyes for a week. I’d gotten a perm. 
I’d gotten a perm because I’d just moved into a new house and a new school and the kids in this school all did everything differently than the kids in the school I’d attended before. Suddenly the things about me that made third graders like me were the very things that made fourth graders hate me. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. And maybe I thought my curl-less hair was part of the problem. 
I don’t remember what my specific wish was that day, that second before my hair caught on fire. I’m sure it wasn’t a sweeping wish, like “Let people like me.” Or “Let me make friends.” But I think it was a ten-year old’s version of that. “I wish I’d get a Walkman just like Jenny’s.” or “I wish I’d get picked first tomorrow at recess.” Or “I wish we’d never play dodge ball again because it’s humiliating the way everyone aims for me, always me, only me.”
However I might have vocalized the wish, whatever specific thing I might have fixated on, the root of it was really that I wished I fit in. I wished people liked me. I probably spent a decade of my life wishing that wish, in some form. And yes, it came true, over and over again. I think that wish, like a lot of sweeping big wishes, falls in and out of True over the course of a life. I’ve had lots of friends, lots of good circles of support, lots of people who have loved me and love me still. But there have been many times I’ve felt lonely and unseen and without a shoulder to lean on. 
I think it’s a rare kid who doesn’t wish for this very thing at some point in her life. But the luckiest of us will outgrow it. And instead of wishing for “people to like me”, we’ll wish instead to find the village that is our own. 
JL: Do you remember a book you read (as an adult or as a child) where you finished it and said, "That's what I'd like to do - I'd like to be able to write like that"? What book was it, and what made you feel that? (Give me details!)
SB: Oh, I love it when that happens. It happens to me a lot, actually. Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere is the first book I remember reading, closing the book, and then immediately opening it back up to page one and starting again. The book made me ache. I remember thinking I wanted to write a story that makes people ache. 
Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens gave me instant writer-envy. I’m a huge fan of satire. And I’m a very opinionated person when it comes to social, moral, and political issues. I hope to one day be able to tell a story that’s both entertaining but also squirm-inducing, just like that one. 
David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary is another book that made me green. I really love stories that are told in an unusual form. Many times I think unusual forms get in the way of the story, but sometimes they are the perfect complement. And the story is all the richer. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Thank you, Julie and Skila (pronounced Sky- luh) for sharing so personally and generously!

Be sure to check out their sites and blogs at Julie Larios (A Drift Record) and Skila Brown (full of photos and quotes) and don't miss Caminar, a very compelling story of war and childhood, family and honor.
Meanwhile, head on over to Jone's place for more Poetry Friday fun. Check it out!

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Friday, August 22, 2014

GUIDE for Crossover by Kwame Alexander

As we "crossover" from summer to back-to-school, I want to encourage you to put Crossover, a novel in verse by Kwame Alexander on your must-share list for the new school year-- particularly if you work with kids in 4th - 8th grade. It's such a fresh story with twin 12 year old boy protagonists who love playing basketball and are growing up-- and maybe apart-- as they cope with middle school, girls, and the expectations of their parents. The poems are full of energy and propel the story forward energetically. But I especially loved the picture of family life that comes across as each boy is trying to carve out his own identity, their dad (a former pro basketball player himself) is a hilarious character with a big story arc of his own, and their mom is the school's vice principal-- more savvy than they give her credit for. The family dynamics are lively and authentic and the picture of life at school rings true too. I'm calling it part Love That Dog meets The Watsons Go to Birmingham meets Slam. 

Here are just a few nuggets from the Readers' Guide I developed for the book and you'll find the whole guide here

1. As students read or listen to this verse novel, encourage them to visualize each of the main characters and talk about what they look like and how they talk and act. Work together to draw character sketches or find magazine or web-based images that look like these characters:
  • Jordan (JB) Bell
  • Josh (“Filthy McNasty”) Bell
  • Dad: Chuck Bell (“Da Man”), a former professional basketball player
  • Mom: Dr. Crystal Stanley-Bell, the assistant principal at the boys’ school (Reggie Lewis Junior High)
Talk about how the twins are alike and how they are different. For example, Jordan (JB) and Josh (“Filthy McNasty”) are identical twins, but JB shaves his head bald and plays shooting guard and Josh has shoulder length dreadlocks (at first) and plays forward. It is usually Josh’s point of view we see as the story unfolds.

5. Several of the poems in this novel lend themselves to readers theater performance, so that students can get a sense of the characters’ voices. The following poems offer text in two parts: plain text and italicized text for two volunteers or two groups to read aloud in turn.
  1. “Conversation” pp.17-19
  2. “The game is tied” p. 36
  3. “Mom doesn’t like us eating out” pp. 41-42
  4. “The inside of Mom and Dad’s bedroom closet” pp. 44-47
  5. “Dad Takes Us to Krispy Kreme and Tells Us His Favorite Story (Again)” pp. 63-65
  6. “Mom calls me into the kitchen” pp. 96-98
  7.  “Phone Conversation (I Sub for JB)” pp. 106-109
  8. “Suspension” pp. 138-141
  9. “I run into Dad’s room” pp. 165-167
  10. “School’s Out” pp. 188-189
  11. “Santa Claus Stops By” pp. 207-209
  12. “Questions” pp. 210-211
7. The author also introduces crucial vocabulary terms through twelve key poems presented at critical intervals throughout the book.
  • “cross-o-ver” p. 29
  •  “ca-lam-i-ty” p. 38-39
  •  “pa-tel-la ten-di-ni-tis” pp. 48-49
  • “pul-chri-tu-di-nous” p. 55
  • “hy-per-ten-sion” p. 76
  •  “i-ron-ic” p. 104
  • “tip-ping point” pp. 118-119
  • “chur-lish” pp. 142-143
  •  “pro-fuse-ly” p. 154
  • “es-tranged” p. 187
  •  “my-o-car-di-al in-farc-tion” p. 201-202
  • “star-less” p. 229
Talk with students about how the poet uses the usual dictionary format in presenting the vocabulary term: the word is shown in syllables, with a pronunciation guide, the part of speech is indicated, and the poem provides a kind of definition along with examples of the meaning of the word (using the phrase “as in:”). Working together, look up some of these words in a dictionary (or online) and compare your findings with the vocabulary poem. Challenge students to write their own “vocabulary” poems for a new word they encounter in the book using Alexander’s “formula.”

Plus, the Readers Guide pinpoints:
  • poems in rap, 
  • incorporates the power of nicknames, 
  • connects with YouTube videos of sports and music figures in the book, 
  • looks at the role of rules in the novel, 
  • showcases various forms and types of poetry that are included, 
  • and examines the "crossover" themes. 
Check it out here.

There is also an audiobook version of this novel in verse available. It's narrated by Corey Allen and produced by Recorded Books. Here's one more way to get kids into the book-- by listening to a pro read it aloud! It's available on CD or as a download here.

Now head on over to Irene's place, Live Your Poem, for more Poetry Friday nuggets!

Friday, August 15, 2014

GUIDE for Silver People by Margarita Engle

One hundred years ago today, the first ship passed through the newly completed Panama Canal changing the route through the Americas forever. Although this was and is celebrated as a technological achievement, I wasn't aware of the cost in human lives and ecological impact till I read Margarita Engle's vivid and compelling novel in verse, Silver People

I was fortunate enough to read an early copy of the book and create an educator's guide for sharing the book with young readers. You can download the guide here. To whet your appetite, here are just a few components to explore.

To set the stage for reading this novel in verse, identify the time frame (1906-1914) for the story’s setting as well as the place and geographical location (Panama). Talk about what was going on in the world at this time (during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and prior to World War I) and locate Panama and the surrounding countries (particularly Cuba and Jamaica) on a map. Look for Bottle Alley, Lake Gatun, the Chagres River, the Gaillard Cut, and the island now known as Barro Colorado extensively studied by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Look for historical photos and documents that help provide a context for understanding the building of the Panama Canal. One resource is a jackdaw of facsimiles of primary source documents available at, specifically this collection: “Panama Canal: Building the 8th Wonder of the World.” This includes many maps, blueprints, ship’s dockets, personal letters and telegrams, ledgers, health records, period postcards, etc.

As students read or listen to this novel in verse, encourage them to visualize each of the main characters and talk about what they look like, what country they are from, what language they speak, how they feel about these events, and what dreams or goals they each have. Work together to draw character sketches or find magazine or web-based images for these characters.
  1. Mateo, from Cuba (our protagonist and a canal laborer who aspires to be an artist)
  2. Anita, from Panama (an orphan and herb girl, sweetheart of Mateo)
  3. Henry, from Jamaica (digger, friend of Mateo)
  4. *John Stevens (Chief Engineer) p. 43
  5. Old Maria (surrogate mother to Anita) p. 83
  6. *Theodore Roosevelt (U.S. President) p. 95
  7. Augusto (New York scientist and artist originally from Puerto Rico) p. 115-117
  8. *George W. Goethals (Chief Engineer) p. 149
  9. *Jackson Smith (Manager) p. 151
  10. *Gertrude Beeks (Welfare Department) p. 163
  11. *Harry Franck (Census Enumerator) p. 213
(*These characters are actual historical figures.)
Students could also each choose a favorite character and read aloud the poems from her/his perspective readers theater style.

Animals of the Panama Jungle
Each of the following animals is featured with a poem from its perspective. Students can choose one of these to prepare for oral reading, researching (online) images and sound effects to accompany their reading. One helpful resource is
  1. Army ants p. 137
  2. Bullet ants p. 138
  3. Capuchin p. 200
  4. Crocodile p. 105
  5. Giant hissing cockroach p. 104
  6. Giant swallowtail butterflies p. 201
  7. Glass frogs p. 26
  8. Howler monkeys (see separate listings)
  9. Jaguar p. 106
  10. King Vulture p. 202
  11. Monkey-eating eagle p. 58
  12. Mosquitoes p. 172
  13. Poison Dart Frogs p. 231
  14. Poison dart tadpoles p. 245
  15. Quetzal p. 244
  16. Ruby-throated hummingbird p. 136
  17. Scarlet macaws p. 230
  18. Three-toed sloth p. 59
  19. Tree Viper p. 60
  20. Vampire bats p. 173-174
  21. Violet-Green swallows p. 175
Check out the GUIDE for more information on:
  • Teaching figurative language
  • Making STEM Connections: Engineering, Machinery, Math
  • Exploring themes
  • Offering literature links
Now head on over to Heidi's place for more Poetry Friday fun.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Poet to Poet: Joyce Sidman and Irene Latham

It's time for another installment of my "Poet to Poet" series-- in which one poet interviews another poet about her/his new book. Today, Joyce Sidman asks Irene Latham three questions about her new book, Dear Wandering Wildebeest and Other Poems from the Water Hole. 

Joyce Sidman is a Newbery honor author whose beautiful poetry often focuses on the natural world. Her ecological trilogy including Song of the Water Boatman, and Other Pond Poems, Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, and Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night offers sensitive depictions of animal life in verse. The poems in This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness have inspired children (and parents) to write their own apologies and Red Sings From Treetops; A Year in Colors brings the seasons to life through all the senses. Her latest book What the Heart Knows is an exquisite collection of laments, spells, chants, blessings, songs, and more. Here Joyce poses three questions for Irene Latham to consider with a particular focus on Irene's new book of poetry, Dear Wandering Wildebeest.

Joyce asks: The jacket copy for your wonderful new poetry book, Dear Wandering Wildebeest And Other Poems from the Water Hole mentions wildlife photographs from Kenya that inspired the book. Can you tell us more about the genesis of this project—what was it about this subject or these photographs that made you want to go forward?

Irene responds: It wasn't just the photographs Greg du Toit captured – though they are amazing, and you can view them here – it was the story of how he struggled to capture the images. Because the lions were too shy to approach the water hole while du Toit was upright or even crouched on the shore, he made a daring move by submerging himself in the water hole. So, basically, he changed perspectives. And it worked! With only du Toit's head above the water, the lions came right to the water's edged and drank their fill, allowing him to get those amazing shots. And that's poetry. Changing perspectives is what poetry is all about. Looking at something differently. It filled me with a sense of freedom and kind of gave me permission to write about animals, even when the reigning wisdom about publishing poetry for kids in today's market is, no animals. Well, I love animals! And how amazing and unique is the African grassland ecosystem? The water hole gave me a focal point and a new perspective. Fortunately for me, my experience didn't result in three months in the hospital as it did for du Toit.

Joyce asks: In Wildebeest, you’ve used such a satisfying format: pairing poems with nonfiction notes. One of my favorite poems, “What Rhino Knows”, has an equally delightful and poetic nonfiction note. Can you talk a bit about the interplay between these two types of text and how you feel each contributes to the book as a whole?

Irene answers: This question makes me smile as you, Joyce, are the Queen of this format! And your collections are what made me fall in love with books that feature poetry and nonfiction notes. It's important to me to write a poem that's poetic, which means not throwing in every single thing I learn about the animal – only the facts and details that speak to me personally and lend themselves to poetic treatment using images and analogy and language. But that means leaving out a world of research! My hope is that the poems make a reader want to know more – and that's where the nonfiction note comes in. I tried to include information relevant to the poem as a way to expand the reader's experience and to instantly satisfy the reader's curiosity. The notes were actually the most frightening and difficult part of creating this collection – I'm so grateful to amazing editor Carol Hinz whose keen eye (and ear!) and expertise helped shape them.

Joyce says: I truly admire authors who can work in different genres. You are an adult poet, children’s poet, and middle grade novelist. Do these different kinds of writing come from different places in yourself?

Irene responds: Thank you! The joke around my house is that I've never met a genre I didn't like. It's kind of a hazard for a writing career – every book feels like starting over. But the world is so big and there's so much out there that interests me... and isn't the endless learning curve one of the most seductive and satisfying things about being a writer? 

As to the whole where-it-comes-from part of the question, it's something I love to think about. It's one of life's mysteries, isn't it? For me, writing is spiritual practice, which is about one-ness with the world, and living in the now. I'm not really interested in separating out parts of myself in order to write. And I will admit to a preference for literature that is timeless and classic, with appeal to all ages. I join Lee Bennett Hopkins in championing this type of poetry. 

One of the big aha moments for me on the journey to writing poetry for children was attending an SCBWI-sponsored poetry retreat with Rebecca Kai Dotlich (arranged by the amazing Robyn Hood Black) and discovering I don't have to be Shel Silverstein; I can write the way I write for adults – striving to create art and beauty-- except in a way that appeals to children. Sometimes I really struggle when editing my own work (and working with editors) to pull away from the wise, adult voice and to approach a subject with the more-innocent, world-as-wonder child's voice. I find that this is more a matter of choosing the right angle and analogy than worrying about elevated language. (You'll notice WILDEBEEST has lots of big words – and a glossary.) To what would the child-me compare the water hole? What moment in a lion's life is most interesting to the child-me? I still feel like a beginner, and I am so grateful for the warmth, grace, and enthusiasm of the Poetry Friday community. What wonderfully diverse and inspiring voices! I'm honored to be be a part of it.

Thanks so much, Joyce, for the thoughtful questions, and for being one of my poetic heroes. And Sylvia, your passion for poetry is changing the world! Thank you for including me on your blog. Happy day to both!

Sylvia says: THANK YOU BOTH for sharing your time and talents! And of course I'm proud as punch to feature poems by both Joyce and Irene in The Poetry Friday Anthology series that Janet (Wong) and I have compiled. :-)

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday gathering at A Year of Reading. See you there!

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